CLE ELUM – A group of firefighters and foresters stood outside a home earlier this week and sketched out a hypothetical plan for setting controlled fires to the homeowner’s 20-acre property. They gathered around trainer Ray Guse to learn about the level of detail necessary to draft and execute such a burn plan.
The group was in Central Washington for a two-week program called the Training Exchange (TREX), which combines classroom work with hands-on experience in lighting and managing controlled fires. These prescribed burns help control overgrown vegetation, serving as a crucial tool for protecting communities from uncharacteristically large wildfires, and for restoring healthy forests.
Training how to do prescribed burns is a great start to reducing our wildfire risks. Photo: Kara Karboski
Guse called prescribed burning “an art and a science” – and he would know. He’s overseen controlled burns in forests across the country and helped create the TREX program.
“We have scientific ways of modeling the fire behavior and we have a tremendous amount of experience,” he said. And when it comes time to burn, “we’ve got a lot of options to manage the fire – both in how we ignite it and the day that we choose to ignite it.”
Burn bosses, the professionals leading a burn, also “know before we light the match how much smoke we might put up,” Guse added.
Before the trainees started walking the property, Guse instructed them to gather an abundance of information, including: the slope of the land, the types of vegetation and how they would burn, the water sources, the wind patterns, and the presence of elk trails or dirt roads that could serve as fire lines. When they were done, the trainees headed back to the classroom to mock up a plan, including how to respond swiftly in the rare event that fire escapes the boundaries of the prescribed burn.
In the days that followed, they would also get the chance to participate in a number of controlled burns.
The training comes as the Washington State Department of Natural Resources gears up for the need to apply a number of forest treatments, including prescribed burning, to more than a million acres of high-risk forests in Washington.
DNR employs the largest wildfire fighting force in the state – firefighters who have seen first-hand how treated forests help slow the spread of wildfire.
“In treated forests, our rates of spread are a lot lower,” said Austin Marshall, the agency’s fire unit manager in Kittitas County. “Our flame lengths are down lower, so it gives us more time to respond to it, and once we get to the fire, we’re able to get crews in there safely.”
In Central Washington, prescribed fires also help the natural landscape recover from more than a century of human meddling that, over time, made forests susceptible to dangerous megafires.
“Prescribed fire is the right fire, in the right place, for the right reasons,” said Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Fire Staff Officer Rob Allen. “It’s a proactive step – a choice to put fire to work for our communities and forests rather than just fight against it year after year.”
Prior to American pioneer settlement, ponderosa pine and other forest species in Central Washington experienced about one low-intensity wildfire each decade. Those fires left behind large, widely-spaced trees, and in time, patches of grass and small shrubs would grow in between them.
But largely due to decades of fire suppression, the grass, shrubs and smaller trees have grown unchecked in these forests, creating a thick understory that, when ignited, can cause fires that kill even the largest trees. These larger fires are harder for firefighters to control and threaten the homes and livelihoods of families living in the region.
Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who oversees DNR, is leading an effort to help address this problem through the 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan for Central and Eastern Washington. Through partnerships with local, state and federal agencies and organizations, the plan acknowledges the links between forest health, wildfire risk, and economic development in rural Washington.
“Fire has and will always be part of the landscape in Central Washington,” Franz said. “That’s why prescribed burning is one of the many strategies we can use, where appropriate, to help our forests and rural communities thrive for generations. Part of this strategy includes providing our firefighters with the skills necessary to do this precise and important work.”
Sharpening, gain skills
TREX was created in 2008 to help address a shortage of firefighters trained in prescribed burning. For firefighters, TREX is also a chance to gain new insights and skills from the seven agencies participating: DNR, the U.S. Forest Service, the federal Bureau of Land Management, the Roslyn Fire Department, Kittitas County Fire District 1, the National Park Service, and the British Columbia Wildfire Service.
By conducting prescribed burns, the firefighters see up-close how low- to moderate-intensity fires can restore forests. They learn about the local vegetation. They learn spot-weather forecasts and other tools that help ensure optimal smoke dispersal during and after a prescribed burn. (Controlled burns are designed to reduce the chance of heavy smoke in nearby communities.)
The TREX event in Cle Elum concludes Oct. 5. It is hosted by DNR, the Washington Prescribed Fire Council, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the Fire Learning Network.
For more information about TREX, visit the program’s Facebook page.